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Simon-Peter, an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, was born and raised a Jew, first Reform, then later Orthodox. She challenges Christians to rethink Jesus’ identity as a Jew, and in the process, to consider ways traditional Christian theology has contributed to anti-Semitism.
How can we continue to heal the breaches between Jews and Christians? How can the biblical texts enrich our understanding of Jesus as a practicing Jew? How can our Christian faith deepen and grow as we consider ways to respect Jesus’ identity as a faithful Jew?
What's a Nice Jewish Girl Like Me Doing in a Place Like This?
Who Do You Say That I Am?
"Who do you say that I am?" This is the question Jesus posed to his long-ago disciples. In a sudden display of clarity, Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." That answer, in addition to being a turning point in the Gospel of Matthew, is also the single greatest point of belief that separates traditional Jewish theology from traditional Christian theology. Christians believe Jesus is the Messiah or Christ, and that he is divine. Jews see Jesus as a prophet at best, a failed messiah at worst, and certainly not divine in any way. Those are two very different perspectives!
I can relate. I know both sides of that theological equation personally. Born and raised a Jew—in an interfaith home with a Jewish mom and a Catholic dad—I went to Reform Temple on Friday nights, Hebrew School one afternoon a week, and religious school on Sunday mornings. I was bat mitzvah at thirteen and confirmed at sixteen. At twenty-two I entered the Orthodox Jewish community. But at twenty-nine, a surprise vision of Jesus led me to seminary, baptism, ordination, church ministry, and a life of Christian discipleship.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's get back to Jesus' question: "Who do you say that I am?" If that question had been posed to me before April 19, 1990, I wouldn't have known how to answer it. At least out loud. Until that day, he wasn't part of my life or my consciousness in any appreciable way. Up until that point, what I knew of Jesus was inferred from the history books. I knew about the Crusades. I knew about the torturous conversion of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. I knew about pogroms, drunken mob attacks on Jews in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I knew about the Holocaust, the seeds of which were sown by Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation. I knew about the dark chapters of Christian history in which my people, the Jewish people, had been treated cruelly by the church in Jesus' name. And what I knew, I didn't like. So, if the same question posed to the disciples had been posed to me, I would have felt awkward, embarrassed, angry. My answer would have been along the lines of "Jesus? He's the Christian God who hates Jews." Because of that misperception on my part, I kept my distance from him, just as I figured he was keeping his distance from me. We had a mutual agreement. Or so I thought.
Then came April 19, 1990, my twenty-ninth birthday, the day he came to me in a vision. I was meditating, fully awake, when all of a sudden, right before my eyes was Jesus. He didn't look like any of the pictures I had seen before. He wasn't blond-haired, blue-eyed, or fair skinned. And there was no name tag or caption that came with this vision. Nothing external to let me know who this was. Even so, every cell in my body knew: this was Jesus. He had thick, wavy, dark brown hair; a full dark brown beard; olive skin; dark eyes. Handsome, actually. Jewish, definitely. He never actually moved his lips or spoke out loud to me. His eyes said it all: I understand you. I accept you. I love you. His voiceless message came through loud and clear. Interestingly, he never asked me to understand him, accept him, or love him. He certainly didn't ask me to follow him. In fact, there were no strings attached. This was unconditional love and acceptance.
Now, as I think back on it, it brings to mind the song I would later learn in the black church community, a song about feeling the joy that comes from the touch of Jesus. "Something happened, and now I know, he touched me and made me whole." But at the time, that's not how it felt.
In fact, it felt just the opposite. I was shocked, unnerved, unsettled. He spoke to me as if we had a relationship. As far as I knew we didn't. I was OK with that. Really OK with that. So, I wasn't sure what to do with this experience. My decision? Ignore it. Don't talk about it. Maybe it will go away. Maybe he will go away.
But it didn't. Neither did he. In fact, my curiosity about him only grew. And not speaking about this experience proved challenging. As discomfiting as it was for me to have had this vision of Jesus, it was even more discomfiting not to tell somebody. Especially for somebody like me who likes to talk about everything! I'm sure I managed to keep my mouth shut for at least a few hours.
Bursting, I confided in Rachel, a spiritual mentor. She would understand, I figured. She too had been raised in a home with one Jewish parent and one Christian parent.
"Did you know that Jesus was Jewish?" she asked when I told her about my experience.
"Yeah; everyone knows that."
"Well, did you know that his disciples were Jewish?"
"What's a disciple?" I asked. Funny question from a person about to become one. But what did I know from disciples?
"Oh," she said, light dawning, "you haven't read the New Testament?" It was more a statement than a question.
"It's not my book!" I responded with attitude.
"I'd better get you one," she said, as if she hadn't heard me.
She followed through, but I didn't. I didn't want to read the New Testament. For a Jew, this Jew anyway, it was anathema. Wouldn't that be like consorting with the enemy? It seemed like Christians had been at the forefront of every bad thing that ever happened to the Jews—from the time Jesus first showed up until the Holocaust—all with Jesus' stamp of approval, right?
As you're reading this, you probably get something I didn't at the time: the information I had was incomplete. In truth, I knew as little about contemporary Christians and Christianity as many Christians know about contemporary Jews and Judaism. From my current vantage point as a United Methodist clergyperson, I see that Jews are taught to mistrust Christians just as Christians are taught to mistrust Jews. Granted, we arrive at this mistrust from very different histories, but I think it's a problem. In fact, this mistrust gets at the crux of our problem. More on that in a bit.
Meanwhile, I didn't read the book Rachel bought me, but I did continue to process my Jesus experience with her. I even branched out and told several friends whom I thought were Christians. What they told me surprised me. They had longed for the kind of experience that I had had. As faithful Christians, they had prayed to receive the very message that had come to me—unbidden and undesired. I began to realize that my experience was fairly unusual. The pull to find out more about Jesus increased.
I Need to See for Myself
I found myself with a foot in two worlds: one foot in the Orthodox Jewish community—with its familiar focus on Torah, Sabbath, and commandments (mitzvot)—and the other foot in the strange new world of Jesus and his followers. Finally, I shared my unnerving experience with Reb Motti, my rabbi.
"Stay and learn with me," he urged. "We'll learn what the Talmud says about Jesus." That was a pretty generous offer from this Chassidic rabbi, as Talmud study was mostly reserved for men, and as far as I knew it didn't say much about Jesus.
"No," I shook my head, surprising even myself. "I need to go and see for myself." It wasn't the first time I had said those words: I need to go see for myself. Six years earlier I had said the same thing when I entered the Orthodox world from the much more liberal Reform Jewish community. At that time I had just returned home from a college-graduation trip to Israel, a gift from my mom's mother, on the Jewish side of the family, which ranged from Reform to Orthodox in their practice.
While we were in Israel, we had stayed with the Orthodox branch of the family: my Uncle Hillel and his wife and children. During those two weeks, I fell in love with Israel, Hebrew, and the experience of being Jewish. To be in the majority, rather than the minority, was a singular experience. Growing up Jewish in Fairfield County, Connecticut, was like being a bee in WASP country. White Anglo Saxon Protestant I wasn't. I never quite felt like I fit in.
After two weeks, my grandmother went back home to Denver and her work as the editor and publisher of a Jewish newspaper. But I convinced her to let me stay another two weeks. During that time, I wandered the streets of Jerusalem, found my way around the Old Shuk (Arab Market), visited museums, added to my rudimentary Hebrew, and soaked up the religious customs of my Orthodox Jewish family. One night, while sleeping on the cool stone tile floor in a borrowed army green sleeping bag, I had an awakening. Literally. I felt like God knocked on the side of my head, woke me up, and spoke to me. As I sat straight up in the sleeping bag, this thought came to me: "OMG, there is a God! And I have been living my life all wrong."
I had just graduated with a degree in environmental studies. Schooled in the sciences, I had an appreciation for the beauty of nature, but not for the divine wisdom behind it. Besides, like many young adults, my religious commitments wavered after I was confirmed. Forget about God; now I was into the party scene and guys! My life was not all it could be. It wasn't all I thought it should be. But from that moment on, I decided to learn more about my religion and to delve deeper into its teachings.
When the two weeks were up, I went back to Montpelier, Vermont, to the funky little apartment I rented (you had to walk through the bathroom to get to the kitchen or living room), and began to keep the Sabbath. I even brought my dishes down to the Winooski River to kasher them. (Think baptize.) I got more involved with my eclectic synagogue—a friendly mish mash of liberal and conservative Jews—helped leadShabbat services, and began a Jewish women's group.
All the while, I read voraciously, studying the traditional teachings of Judaism. My non-Orthodox family was puzzled by this. But I threw off their concern and decided to see for myself about the Orthodox Jewish community. I then moved to Denver to be near family, the much larger Jewish community and a wonderful synagogue that welcomed Jews like me who were exploring a Torah-observant lifestyle (think born-again Jews).
The richness of the Sabbath, the sense of community, the feeling of belonging, and the wisdom of the teachings all touched me deeply. Yes, there were sacrifices. I had to set aside my feminism to enter this community. Men and women were seated separately with a dividing curtain between them. Only men could be rabbis, lead prayer, and read from the Torah. Women had their sphere of influence, too, but not in the public ways I was used to. Yet, the sense of place and belonging, of history and tradition, of comfort and meaning was worth it to me at the time. I even married another ba'al teshuvah (returnee).
A year later, after being married in an Orthodox Jewish wedding ceremony—replete with the experience of each of us being lifted up on chairs and danced around and of setting up a kitchen with two sets of kosher dishes; one for daily use and the other for Passover—came this experience with Jesus. And I realized—sharply and reluctantly—that my spiritual journey was not over; my spiritual identity not yet fully defined. It was time for me to see for myself again. It was time to learn more about this Jesus.
Even though I didn't know what it said in the still unread New Testament Rachel had given me, Jesus' call to leave everything behind and come and follow him was what I ended up doing. I left behind all that was familiar and comfortable—community, customs, and as it turned out, my husband—to find out more about Jesus.
One and a half years after my Jesus experience, including one very awkward attempt at attending a Protestant church service—I felt so unsafe that I grabbed my purse every time we stood up and sat down—and one very confusing experience in a Messianic Jewish congregation—why did the women have their heads covered like Orthodox women and why were the men wearing yarmulkes (pronounced YAH-muh-kuhs; the r and l are silent) and why did they light three Sabbath candles instead of the usual two and why was the nice man trying to scare me into an immediate baptism?—after all this, I found myself walking through the doors of the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. What's a nice Jewish girl like me doing in a place like this? I thought. I certainly didn't plan on becoming a Christian, let alone a pastor. But there I was anyway, struggling to answer the question that all disciples are faced with: "Who do you say that I am?"
What's in a Name?
The biblical disciples had to ask themselves: Who is this Jesus who multiplies loaves and fishes, heals the sick with the touch of a hand or the fringes of a garment, gives sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, and raises the dead? I had to wrestle with a question of a different sort. Who is this Jesus who comes, unasked, to a Jewish woman like me with understanding, acceptance, and love in his eyes? And why should I care?
When Jesus asked the disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" they had a variety of answers. "Some say, John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." Yes, Jesus persisted, "but who do you say that I am?" "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God," Simon Peter answered. That took chutzpah to speak those words. The Jewish people had been waiting centuries for the Messiah to come. And for Simon to declare what his heart whispered—that took guts!
Jesus confirmed it: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but by my Father in heaven." And he tells him on that kind of faith the very church would be built. Then, Jesus changed Simon's name to Peter, the rock.
Like Simon, I also went through a name change. Many a grocery store cashier has asked me about my name. Yes, it's very biblical. No, I wasn't born a Simon and then married a Peter. It was more intentional than that. In the Bible, a name change is often accompanied by a new purpose or a special interaction with God. Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Jacob became Israel, and Simon became Peter. I was thinking about a new name that would embrace the new me.
As this process was unfolding, I went back to Rachel.
"Is there a Simon Peter in the Bible?" I asked, my New Testament still neglected on the bookshelf.
"Yes," she nodded.
"Was he a good guy or a bad guy?"
"A pretty good guy," she nodded again.
"Oh. That's the name that keeps coming to me." I finally cracked the book and went to read up on Simon Peter. I liked the idea of sharing a name with this Jewish follower of Jesus who also had his name changed. It fit.
But it wasn't just my last name that changed. Much as I loved my birth name, I laid it aside and took the name of the strong Jewish matriarch, Rebekah, who went against the customs of her time to embrace the new thing God was doing. Even though it went against the way things were done back then, she understood that her elder son Esau would serve her younger son, Jacob. I could relate to Rebekah's bravery because it seemed to me that this calling me from the Jewish community to Jesus and his followers was definitely going against the way things were done; at least in my world. But I also sensed, like Rebekah, that this break with tradition was God's doing. It surely wasn't mine! I could no more explain the vision of Jesus than I could explain it away. I just knew I wanted to go into it being clear about who I was: a Jew who was following Jesus.
Even though Peter and I bear the same name now, I was no rock in my faith at that point. More like a pebble! Yes, I was in seminary. But I still wasn't sure about this Jesus. Would it be safe to trust him? Would it be wise to cast my lot with his followers? Weren't these the same people who had caused so much pain and suffering for the Jews?
Eventually, through my studies in seminary and lots of inner wrestling, I came to answer Jesus' question like my namesake: You are the Christ, the Messiah, Son of the Living God. But somewhere along the way, in both seminary and church, I noticed that the Jesus who came to me differed from the Jesus of the church, the local church anyway. The Jesus who came to me was Jewish. But the Jesus I heard about in church had been stripped of his Jewishness, divorced from his context, and turned into a Christian. A very nice Christian, but a non-Jew nonetheless. It's almost as if something had been lost in translation.
The more seminary courses I took, and the more church services I attended, the more I sensed it. It seemed to me that the Jews were the bad guys in every sermon I heard. Yes, even "Protestant liberalism has its own form of anti-Judaism: Jesus is gracious and against rules that exclude, with a backdrop that Jews are for rules and like to exclude." I was mystified by the interpretive style that seemed to say the Old Testament existed to prove but one point: that the Jews had been given every chance to be faithful to God, had not risen to the challenge, and thus Jesus and the Christians came to save everybody! I chafed under that message. None of those interpretations fit the Judaism I had known or grown up with.
Like Mary, I pondered this in my heart. I wondered what to make of it. Over time, I began to collect books on the subject that might help me make sense of the disconnect I was experiencing. I wanted the church to experience the beauty of Judaism as I knew it and as I suspected Jesus must have known it. Slowly, I started to incorporate my findings into sermons and Bible studies, to lead Jewish Passover Seders in churches during Lent, and to introduce churches to other Jewish holidays. When I left local church ministry after fifteen years of pastoring, I took my findings on the road to give workshops in churches on reading the Bible through Jewish eyes. This book is the result.
Excerpted from The Jew Named Jesus by Rebekah Simon-Peter. Copyright © 2013 Rebekah Simon-Peter. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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